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Sri Lanka: Little Action on Promised Justice, Reforms

3 hours 53 min ago


Sri Lankan Tamil women hold up photographs of their missing family members as they wait to hand over a petition to the UN head office in Colombo on March 13, 2013.

© 2018 Dinuka Liyanawatte / Reuters
(Geneva) – The Sri Lankan government should announce a time-bound plan to carry out its pledges to the United Nations Human Rights Council since October 2015, Human Rights Watch said today. At an interim update before the Council this week on progress towards fulfilment of its human rights commitments, UN member countries should press Sri Lanka to ensure justice and accountability for the tens of thousands of victims of the country’s brutal civil war.

In October 2015, the Human Rights Council adopted Resolution 30/1 by consensus in which Sri Lanka pledged to set up four transitional justice mechanisms to promote “justice, reconciliation and human rights” in the country. These included an accountability mechanism involving international judges, prosecutors, and investigators; a truth and reconciliation mechanism; an office of missing persons; and an office for reparations. Thus far only the Office of Missing Persons (OMP) has been set up – just ahead of the current session in Geneva. The high commissioner for human rights, in a report to the Council, expressed similar concerns. The Council will discuss the high commissioner’s report this week.

“The Human Rights Council needs to make it clear to the Sri Lankan government that it expects it to stop playing games and start delivering on its commitments,” said John Fisher, Geneva director. “The Sri Lankan government needs to move beyond pre-session PR and present a meaningful and concrete plan to deliver results for the victims who have been awaiting justice for far too long.”

Human Rights Watch welcomed the December action by the government to accede to the Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture (OPCAT).

Creating the Office of Missing Persons, while a positive step, is just the latest body set up in Sri Lanka to look into enforced disappearances. Reports of prior government-established commissions, some of which have been made public in recent years, have not led to accountability.

“The Office of Missing Persons now represents their last best hope to learn the fate of their loved ones,” said Fisher. “It must do its work quickly and properly. Families of the disappeared have appeared before commission after commission, and many have camped out in the open over the past year in protest of government inaction.”

The justice and accountability mechanism in the 2015 resolution is a key demand from victims and families affected by Sri Lanka’s 27-year civil war between the government and the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. Both sides to the conflict, which ended in May 2009 with a decisive government victory, committed serious human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law, including extrajudicial killings, deliberate and indiscriminate attacks against civilians, enforced disappearances, and torture. The government should publicly set out when this mechanism will be set up instead of hiding behind various politically expedient excuses, Human Rights Watch said.

The government has also failed to deliver on its other pledges under the 2015 resolution. A government-commissioned task force led by independent activists carried out a nationwide consultation down to the grass-roots level and delivered a detailed report on the expectations of victims and affected communities. However, the report and its recommendations have languished and it is unclear whether the government will take them into account in either the Office of Missing Persons or the other transitional justice mechanisms.

Another key outstanding pledge, namely security sector reform including the repeal of the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), also remains unfulfilled. Sri Lanka has a long history of abuses by security forces, both during and after the civil war. The security forces have long used the PTA to detain suspects for years without charge, facilitating torture and other mistreatment. The government’s claims to be working on repealing and replacing the PTA with a rights-respecting law have yet to come to fruition.

Additionally, Sri Lanka’s state of emergency laws and regulations under the Public Security Ordinance (PSO) create a legal framework for abuse by the security forces in the name of national security interests. The government recently resorted to emergency rule in response to anti-Muslim riots in the Kandy district. The government was largely successful in quelling the riots, arresting dozens of people suspected of instigating and participating in the violence, but the episode highlighted the lack of action in limiting the PSO’s broad powers. The government had pledged to review these regulations under Resolution 30/1 but they still permit the authorities to detain people for up to 14 days before being produced in court.

“A lack of justice and impunity for past abuses fuels current abuses in Sri Lanka,” Fisher said. “The government’s delay in undertaking promised reforms is a slap in the face to the victims and their families who have waited for years for answers. The government should stop hiding behind politically expedient excuses and act on its pledges.”

Insult China’s National Anthem at Your Peril

Monday, March 19, 2018

Security guards wave to urge Hong Kong fans stop booing and turning their backs during Chinese national anthem, at the Asian Cup preliminary match between Hong Kong and Lebanon in Hong Kong, China November 14, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters

Hong Kong people have seen their right to free expression increasingly threatened under Chinese Communist Party rule, but soon they are likely to have even more to worry about. This week Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, or LegCo, will officially kick off discussion on a proposed law that could criminally punish – with up to three years in prison – anyone who “insults” the Chinese national anthem, “March of the Volunteers.”

If enacted, the bill will penalize anyone who “performs or sings” the anthem “in a distorted or derogatory manner,” or “publicly and willfully alters the lyrics or the score.” Schools will be required to teach students to sing and “understand the history and spirit” of the national anthem.

But what would constitute an “insult” to the song? Unnamed government sources say it will depend on the person’s “intent,” encouraging political interpretations by the authorities.

As with other vague bans on free speech in Hong Kong, discussions about what is allowed have quickly brought out the absurdity of the bill. One Hong Kong newspaper tried to clarify the bill by positing different scenarios in a “question and answer” format: in one, the paper asks whether people at a restaurant could face prosecution if they fail to stand when the anthem is played on television. Citing “official sources,” the paper reassures those who do not stand because they are eating, but suggests that other gestures – such as flipping a middle finger – might not earn similar leniency.   

International human rights law permits restrictions on speech to protect national security or public order, but only when absolutely necessary and strictly proportionate to the risk of harm to those interests. The proposed law does not meet this requirement and would violate such rights guaranteed under Hong Kong’s functional constitution, the Basic Law.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam has played down fears the bill could be politicized, saying it merely aims to encourage “respect” for the anthem. Yet she has not acknowledged citizens’ concerns about forcing their political loyalty to Beijing, or how mainland authorities’ frequently jail people for peaceful criticism. Enacting this law will merely remind Hong Kong people just how tenuous their rights to free speech are.

Italy: Migrant Rescue Ship Impounded

Monday, March 19, 2018

Proactiva’s rescue ship Open Arms on mission in November 2017. 

© 2017 Pau Coll   (Milan) – Italy has impounded a rescue ship and threatened criminal charges against two members of its crew and the founder of the organization after they refused to turn migrants over to Libyan forces, fearing that they would be abused, Human Rights Watch said today.   On March 18, 2018, an Italian prosecutor in Catania, Sicily, impounded the Spanish rescue group Proactiva’s ship Open Arms and is considering levelling charges of criminal association for the purposes of facilitating irregular migration after Proactiva refused to transfer people rescued in international waters to a Libyan patrol boat. Everyone intercepted by Libyan forces or handed over to them is taken to Libya and placed in detention.   “Proactiva acted to save migrants’ lives and then prevented them from being abused in indefinite detention,” said Judith Sunderland, associate director for Europe and Central Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “It is perverse to try to characterize as criminal a refusal to hand victims to Libyan coast guard forces knowing they could face possible torture and rape in Libyan detention centers.”   International human rights and refugee law prohibits returning anyone to a place where they face a real risk of torture or ill-treatment – the nonrefoulement principle. Empowering Libyan forces to capture people on the high seas, when it is known that they will return them to cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment in arbitrary detention exposes Italy and other European Union (EU) states involved to charges of aiding and abetting in serious human rights violations in detention, Human Rights Watch said.   Italy’s strategy to reduce boat arrivals is in line with the EU’s approach to migration cooperation with Libya. The EU is supporting training and technical assistance to Libyan coast guard forces nominally under the United Nations (UN) and EU-backed Government of National Accord based in Tripoli, and wants to expand those efforts. Despite EU insistence, the International Maritime Organization has not yet recognized a Libyan search-and-rescue zone, and Libya does not yet have a fully functioning maritime rescue coordination center.   Italy has delivered four patrol boats to Libyan coast guard forces. The Libyan forces included patrol boat 648, which was involved in this incident as well as a deadly intervention in November 2017 that cost the lives of at least 50 people, according to the German nongovernmental group Sea-Watch.   Based on a detailed incident report provided by Proactiva, the Open Arms responded on March 15 to an overcrowded rubber dinghy in international waters, 73 nautical miles off the Libyan coast. The Italian Maritime Rescue Coordination Center (IMRCC) informed the Open Arms after it reached the rubber boat that Libyan forces had command over the operation, but told the Open Arms crew to use their judgment. For the security of the people on board the rubber dinghy, Proactiva decided to provide everyone with life jackets and to transfer all the women and children to Proactiva’s rigid-hulled inflatable boats and stayed nearby.   Libyan coast guard patrol boat 648 reached the scene approximately 30 minutes later. Anabel Montes, the search-and-rescue coordinator on board Open Arms, told Human Rights Watch that coast guard officers threatened via megaphone and radio, in English, to kill the crew on the Proactiva boat holding women and children if it did not turn them over. Eleven men jumped out of the rubber boat into the water and were also taken on board by the Proactiva boats. At one point, the Libyan patrol boat and its own rubber dinghy sandwiched one of the Proactiva boats, and an unarmed Libyan officer boarded to convince people to transfer to the patrol boat. He desisted in the face of everyone’s refusal to cooperate.   After a three-hour stand-off, the Proactiva crew were able to safely transfer all women, children, and men to the Open Arms ship and proceed north. For more than 24 hours, the crew was unsure where they would be able to disembark the rescued people. The Italian Maritime rescue coordination center told them Italy had not coordinated the rescue and was therefore not responsible.   The national coordination center in Madrid, Spain, the ship’s flag state, told them they couldn’t help because Proactiva had performed a rescue in “Libya’s SAR zone.” Malta agreed to evacuate an infant and her mother for medical reasons. The Spanish government interceded on Proactiva’s behalf, and Italy eventually allowed disembarkation in Pozzallo, Sicily, on the morning of March 17.   The prospect of charges against Proactiva is the latest in a series of measures to discredit nongovernmental rescue groups, Human Rights Watch said. Anti-immigrant groups and some media carried out a concerted smear campaign in 2017. Carmelo Zuccaro, the Sicilian prosecutor who opened the investigation against Proactiva, made the news last year with broad accusations of complicity between rescue groups and smuggling networks, even though Zuccaro later confirmed to a parliamentary inquiry he had no evidence of any wrongdoing.   Another Sicilian prosecutor sequestered the Iuventus, a ship operated by the German group Jugend Rettet in August and is still pursuing an investigation into alleged facilitation of irregular migration. The Italian government imposed a code of conduct in July on rescue groups that serves a dual purpose of implying they need management and of restricting their ability to operate effectively.   “It is shocking that Europe has reached the point of criminalizing rescue at sea,” Sunderland said. “Europeans should support, not smear, people saving lives in the Mediterranean, and remember that EU and Italian policies are propping up a cycle of detention and violence in Libya, while groups like Proactiva are saving lives.” 

No Shelter in Afghanistan

Monday, March 19, 2018

Members of civil society organizations chant slogans during a protest to condemn the killing of 27-year-old woman, Farkhunda, who was beaten with sticks and set on fire by a crowd of men in central Kabul in broad daylight on Thursday, in Kabul March 24, 2015.

© 2018 Reuters

More than 8 out of 10 Afghan women and girls will suffer domestic and other violence in their lifetime. Before 2001, they had nowhere to run. These days there are some safe havens: the country’s tiny, but desperately important, network of women’s shelters.

But these shelters are now under attack – and not for the first time – by Afghanistan’s own government. Last month, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs (MoWA) announced plans to seize control of shelter funding provided by foreign donors, and instead require shelter operators to seek funding through the ministry. This might sound reasonable – a hallmark of President Ashraf Ghani’s government has been a push for greater government control over donor funds in the name of corruption.

But we’ve seen this before. In 2011, MoWA also pushed for control of the shelters and used the same rhetoric as this time – alluding to “problems” in the refuges and suggesting – falsely – that shelters are brothels. But these abusive lies have been spread for years by opponents of women’s rights, who believe that women should have no safe haven from their husband no matter how violent and that a father or brother should have total control over the life – or death – of a woman.

In 2011, I was one of several lawyers who spent many hours reviewing the regulation MoWA sought to impose on shelters. It was clear that it intended to deprive women of refuge. Under the regulation, women would have been forced to convince a panel that they deserve shelter, and to undergo humiliating and medically meaningless “virginity tests.” Worst of all, they would have been turned over to their families at the relatives’ request – although nearly all were fleeing abuse from their own family.

In 2011, and in 2013 when MoWA tried again, international donors who fund the shelters fought back.

But foreign donor interest in Afghanistan has fallen dramatically. It is far from clear that they will fight again to save the shelters.

I have met Afghan women whose lives were saved by these refuges. I remember the fear in their eyes. If donors don’t act – and fast – they will have even more to fear. 

Ukraine: Justice Needed for Former Secret Prison Detainees

Monday, March 19, 2018

(Kyiv) – Victims of arbitrary detention in government-controlled secret prisons in eastern Ukraine face new, serious obstacles to justice, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International said today.

At least five detainees held in secret facilities run by Ukraine’s Security Service (SBU) in 2015 and 2016 filed complaints against the authorities for their enforced disappearance, torture, and other ill-treatment used to extract forced confessions, and subsequent unlawful detention. An appeals court will issue a ruling on March 27, 2018, on an appeal of a complaint that had been dismissed.

“People held for months in Ukraine’s secret detention sites endured serious abuse,” said Tanya Cooper, Ukraine researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Almost two years later, facing a wall of denial from the authorities, they are as far from justice as when they were detained.”

In July 2016, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International released a report documenting nine cases of arbitrary, prolonged detention of civilians by Ukrainian authorities, including some enforced disappearances. The groups also documented nine cases of arbitrary, prolonged detention of civilians by Russia-backed armed groups. Most of the cases took place in 2015 and 2016.

Soon after the release of the report and after representatives of both groups met with Ukrainian officials, the Kharkiv SBU released 13 of the people whose cases Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International had been aware of. By the end of 2016, the Kharkiv SBU had released three of the others and two men whose cases were unknown to the two groups at the time.

The SBU leadership never acknowledged the detentions or releases and has continued to deny secretly detaining civilians, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary from Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and others.

Five of those released have filed complaints against the Ukrainian authorities. One of them is Kostyantyn Beskorovaynyi, who spent 15 months between December 2014 and February 2016 in unacknowledged and unlawful detention in three SBU facilities – in Kramatorsk, Izyum, and Kharkiv. In June 2016, Beskorovaynyi filed a complaint to the Prosecutor’s Office, alleging that he was the victim of an enforced disappearance, torture, and ill-treatment and subsequent unlawful and secret detention.

Beskorovaynyi’s lawyer told Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch that the authorities have still not carried out an effective investigation into his case. On March 10, 2017, an investigator from the Military Prosecutor’s Office in Kramatorsk re-designated Beskorovaynyi a witness instead of a plaintiff, allowing the investigator to promptly close the case. As a witness, Beskorovaynyi was not entitled to appeal the investigator’s decision.

On February 26, 2018, an appeals court restored Beskorovaynyi’s status as a plaintiff. On March 27, the appeals court will decide whether to order the criminal investigation reopened.

By the end of 2016, four other people that the SBU had held unlawfully in the same facility during the same period had also filed complaints about their enforced disappearance, torture, and ill-treatment and subsequent unlawful detention between December 2015 and August 2016. They told Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch that an investigator from the Military Prosecutor’s Office in Kramatorsk interviewed them toward the end of 2016, but they have heard nothing further.

An investigative report, aired by the Ukrainian independent TV company Hromadske on March 15, documents the secret detention of several people by the SBU in Kharkiv. Hromadske journalists interviewed Beskorovaynyi and three other detainees, as well as the SBU leadership in Kharkiv and Kyiv.

The Hromadske investigation was prompted by the allegations documented by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

Ukraine’s international partners should urge the country’s leadership to conduct effective investigations and end impunity for enforced disappearances, illegal detention, torture, and other ill-treatment by government forces. The authorities should acknowledge the SBU’s secret detention and ensure that any remaining secret sites are closed, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International said.

“Instead of addressing past injustices, the Ukrainian authorities are denying the truth, denying justice to victims, and stalling and obstructing effective and thorough investigation of these grave human rights violations,” said Oksana Pokalchuk, director of Amnesty International Ukraine. “Instead of cornering themselves in this way, the Ukrainian authorities should take responsibility for these abuses and identify and bring those responsible for all aspects of the secret detentions to justice.”

Algeria: Feminist Groups Arbitrarily Suspended

Monday, March 19, 2018

(Beirut) – Algerian authorities sealed the premises of two women’s rights associations on February 27 on the grounds that they were not registered, Human Rights Watch said today. The groups were allowed to reopen “temporarily” on March 5.


Seals on the locks of the association Algerian Women Claiming their Rights (Femmes Algériennes Revendiquant leurs Droits, FARD). 

© 2018 Private

While the two organizations registered legally, one in 1989 and the other in 1996, authorities have since required associations to re-register under a 2012 law and refused to renew their legal status, without providing an explanation. Under the restrictive 2012 Law on Associations, Algerian authorities have broad discretion to withhold legal recognition from nongovernmental associations, keeping them in legal limbo.

“Algerian authorities should stop using the association law as a Damocles sword hanging over independent associations that they dislike,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.

The 2012 law, in article 70, requires organizations that were legally registered under the previous law to resubmit their bylaws or face dissolution. The two Oran-based groups, the Feminist Association for Personal Development and Exercise of Citizenship (Association Féministe pour l’Epanouissement de la Personne et l’Exercice de la Citoyenneté, AFEPEC) and Algerian Women Claiming their Rights (Femmes Algériennes Revendiquant leurs Droits, FARD) sent their new registration documents to the authorities in 2012 and 2014 respectively, but never received a registration receipt despite several efforts to follow up.

On February 25, the Oran governor issued a written decision, based on “reports that FARD and AFEPEC, two unlicensed associations, are pursuing their activities,” to close their premises “until they straighten out their legal situation.”

Fatma Boufenik, director of FARD’s counseling center for women victims of violence, told Human Rights Watch that the association received no prior notice of the closure.

“On February 27, colleagues and I were on duty assisting women at the counseling center,” Boufenik said. “We left at about 1 p.m. I live in that same neighborhood. When neighbors informed me that the police had come and sealed our office and the office of AFEPEC, I went and discovered that they had put seals in our lock.”

Boufenik said that FARD had been legally registered since 1996, under the 1990 law on associations. After legislators replaced that law in 2012, FARD held a general assembly on January 9, 2014, as mandated by the new law, and deposited the required documents with the Direction de l’Action Sociale (DAS), the local branch of the Ministry of National Solidarity, Family and Condition of Women, on January 29, 2014. On March 30, the group received a “deposit receipt” proving that the Wali of Oran had received the file. Human Rights Watch has reviewed that receipt. Since then, the authorities have not responded.

Malika Remaoun, vice president of AFEPEC, told Human Rights Watch that to comply with the 2012 law, the association held a general assembly on February 22, 2012 and deposited the required documents on February 29. “But we did not receive our deposit receipt until 2014, even though it was dated March 2012,” she said. “Since then, we have been asking for the normalization of our legal status, to no avail.”

On March 5, the governor of Oran allowed FARD and AFEPEC to reopen. His decision, which Human Rights Watch reviewed, stated that the reopening was only temporary, pending “the normalization of their legal status.”

Human Rights Watch has urged the Algerian government to revise the law on associations to make it consistent with international standards governing the right of association.

The 2012 law requires associations to obtain a registration receipt from authorities before they can legally operate. Authorities can refuse to register an association if they decide that the content and/or objectives of a group’s activities are contrary to Algeria’s “fundamental principles (constantes nationales) and values, public order, public morals and the applicable laws and regulations.” These vague criteria give authorities broad leeway to block a group’s legalization.

Article 8 of the new law states that the relevant administrative authority will issue a “mandatory deposit receipt” “on the spot” after checking the documents submitted by the association. The law gives the authority no discretion to refuse to accept the documents or to refuse to issue the receipt. The administration then has 30 to 60 days to decide whether to allow the registration to take effect.

The law states that “at the expiration of the deadlines mentioned above, the administration’s silence is tantamount to agreement. In this case, the administration is obliged to deliver the registration receipt.”

In practice, however, the administration has refused in some cases to issue the receipt.

Human rights organizations such as the Algerian League for Human Rights (Ligue Algérienne des Droits de l’Homme, LADDH), the Youth Action Rally (Rassemblement Action Jeunesse, RAJ,), and the Algerian chapter of Amnesty International, all previously registered associations that re-submitted their documents in compliance with the 2012 law, still await their legal recognition.

The lack of legal registration hobbles associations in Algeria in many ways, including preventing them from opening a bank account or renting an office in the association’s name or renting a public hall for a meeting. Moreover, members of an association that is “non-accredited, suspended, or dissolved” risk prison sentences of up to six months for conducting activities in its name.

The Stories of Asylum Seekers Trapped in Greece

Monday, March 19, 2018

Zahra Mosawi, 28, from Afghanistan is trapped on Lesbos, Greece. Despite being a survivor of gender-based violence and in need of psychosocial support, she’s been unable to find help in the camp.

© 2017 ZALMAÏ for Human Rights Watch

Deadly, abysmal, dire, fear-inducing, insecure, cold, violent, humiliating, unfair…

I’ve used these words often over the past two years to describe the situation for thousands of asylum-seeking women, men, and children trapped on Greece’s islands. They are pawns in a deal struck between the European Union and Turkey that empowers Greece to try to force most asylum seekers back to Turkey without first hearing their claims.

Trapped: Asylum Seekers in Greece

In this special feature, Emina Ćerimović and photographer Zalmaï investigate the mental health crisis facing asylum seekers on the island of Lesbos.

Read more

Over these two years, Human Rights Watch has gathered hundreds of statements from victims describing the misery of their indefinite confinement. Some of their stories, combined with photos and videos, are featured in “Trapped: Asylum Seekers in Greece.” Here, we take viewers on a journey of the islands though the eyes of asylum-seekers – you see into their lives, their overcrowded and sagging tents, and psychological distress.

Their lives are on hold: Women, men, and children live crammed together. There isn’t enough food, water, shelter, or health care. The state of the few toilets and showers are abysmal, and particularly difficult for people with disabilities to use. Children don’t go to school and adults live out the days with nothing to do. Security has increasingly deteriorated, putting people in danger.

For most, there is no end in sight. Many people have attempted to end their lives due to the distress they experience.

“There is no peace, no safety, no dignity in Moria. It’s worse than jail,” Roula, a Syrian mother of two told me. “We are not treated as human beings.”

End The Asylum Crisis on Greek Islands

Tell Greece’s Prime Minister to end the containment of asylum seekers on the Islands by December 21, and call on other European leaders to support Greece in doing so!

Act Now

Women and girls say they experience sexual harassment and threat of violence daily, deterring them from leaving their shelters or going to the bathroom alone. They have little confidence that Greek authorities would help them if they report incidents.

On this grim anniversary of the EU-Turkey deal, Greece and its EU partners should work to restore the dignity and humanity of people seeking protection, and start by scrapping the containment policy, which confines people to these islands. It is not necessary for migration control or the administration of the asylum system.

With the EU’s support, Greece should rapidly expand safe accommodation and services on the mainland and create a system to move people there quickly.

For thousands of asylum seekers trapped here, Greece’s beautiful islands are places of misery and fear. No one should live in these conditions. It is time they end this inhumane containment and #OpenTheIslands.

Russia Backs Syria in Unlawful Attacks on Eastern Ghouta

Saturday, March 17, 2018

People walk with their belongings as they flee the rebel-held town of Hammouriyeh, in the village of Beit Sawa, eastern Ghouta, Syria March 15, 2018. 

© 2018 Reuters/Omar Sanadiki

(Beirut) – With Russia’s continued support, the Syrian government is using unlawful tactics in its assault on Eastern Ghouta, including what appears to be the use of internationally banned weapons, Human Rights Watch said today. There are significant concerns about how government forces will treat residents in areas that come under its control, given past reports of reprisal executions.

The UN Security Council should urgently demand a United Nations monitoring team be granted immediate access to areas of Eastern Ghouta, now under government control. The team should document any crimes already committed; their presence may deter further violations. They should also visit sites to which the government is transferring Eastern Ghouta residents, as there are significant concerns about their treatment. If Russia again vetoes council action, the UN General Assembly should call for the immediate deployment of monitors.

“Instead of just watching while the Syrian-Russian military alliance annihilates Eastern Ghouta, the UN Security Council should act to put a stop to these unlawful attacks,” said Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “If Russia again tries to protect the Syrian government by preventing council action, the General Assembly should demand monitors for Ghouta’s residents. For weeks these people endured starvation and bombardment and now they’re at risk of detention and even execution.”

Eastern Ghouta, a suburb of Syria’s capital, Damascus, and home to an estimated 400,000 civilians, has been under attack by the Syrian-Russian military alliance since February 19. Syrian government forces have besieged Eastern Ghouta since 2013, severely restricting humanitarian aid in violation of the laws of war and preventing civilians from leaving. The alliance has bombarded Eastern Ghouta, failing to distinguish between civilian and military targets, hitting residential areas, hospitals, schools, and markets. According to the Ghouta United Relief Office, at least 1,699 residents have been killed since February 19.

On March 17, Human Rights Watch received a distress call from a member of the Syrian Civil Defense who told Human Rights Watch that he and 19 colleagues, five of whom are wounded, have been surrounded by government forces. According to him, in addition, there are 90 members of the Syrian Civil Defense and their relatives trapped in a second location, and they are all requesting safe passage to non-government-held areas. He said they fear retaliation, including summary execution, when the government takes the area.

After government forces retook Aleppo, Human Rights Watch and the United Nations received reports of reprisals and mass executions. Human Rights Watch has not been able to verify the Aleppo reports and has not yet documented reprisals against Eastern Ghouta residents who have come under government control, but it has previously reported mass executions of civilians by Syrian government forces in areas that have come under their control.

The UN General Assembly’s landmark decision in December 2016 to establish a quasi-special prosecutor mechanism for Syria was prompted by outrage at the way Russia prevented the council from taking action to protect civilians during the brutal Syrian-Russian operation to retake Aleppo.

On February 24, the Security Council passed a resolution calling for a 30-day ceasefire in Eastern Ghouta, to allow in humanitarian aid and stop indiscriminate attacks on civilians, as required by international law. But the resolution was never fully implemented and the council has taken no action. Russia, which shares responsibility for violations committed by joint operations of its military alliance, has used its veto 11 times to shield Syria from accountability.

There is evidence that Syria’s operation with Russia in Eastern Ghouta involves the use of internationally banned weapons, including cluster munitions, incendiary weapons, and chemical weapons.

Human Rights Watch spoke to three witnesses who said that on March 7, 2018, the military alliance attacked residential areas in al-Hammouriyeh with ground-launched and air-dropped cluster munitions, among other munitions. According to local doctors and first responders, at least 20 residents died in the attack. Human Rights Watch examined photos of weapon remnants taken by a local media activist at one of the strike sites and identified the munition as an OTR-21 “Tochka” surface-to-surface, short-range tactical ballistic missile. A first responder told Human Rights Watch that there were several consecutive attacks with cluster munitions that day, including in al-Hammouriyeh, but that he could not recall precise details of their location because he had responded to many such attacks. He said the Syrian Civil Defense rescued more than 40 victims that day.

There is evidence that cluster munitions have been used in several attacks on Eastern Ghouta in March. Photographs shared by Syria Civil Defense of weapons remnants from a reported attack on March 11 show unexploded AO-2.5RT submunitions delivered in RBK-500 cluster bombs. A witness to an air attack on Hammouriyeh on March 7 gave Human Rights Watch a photograph of a AO-2.5RT submunition he said was left over from the attack. Human Rights Watch has documented Syrian government use of banned cluster munitions since 2012.

Syria Civil Defense reports that at about 11:48am on March 16, air-dropped incendiary munitions were used on the Eastern Ghouta residential area of Kafr Batna, killing at least 61 and wounding more than 200. It said that most victims were women and children who were burned alive. Photographs and video provided to Human Rights Watch by doctors, and publicly available, show at least 15 bodies with serious burns.

Photographs reported by the Syrian Civil Defense to have been taken immediately after the attack show multiple small fires burning brightly, indicating the possible use of ZAB submunitions which are delivered by Soviet or Russian-made RBK-500 bombs.

Since November 2012, Human Rights Watch has documented civilian harm from Syrian government use of air-dropped incendiary weapons. Attacks using air-delivered incendiary weapons in civilian areas are prohibited under Protocol III of the Convention on Conventional Weapons, which Syria has not ratified.

Doctors in Eastern Ghouta told Human Rights Watch that they have treated symptoms of chlorine use from multiple attacks, including on February 25 in Chifouniya, March 7 in al-Hammouriyeh, and on March 11 in Arbin. Human Rights Watch has not independently corroborated the use of chlorine in these strikes but has previously documented use of chlorine as a chemical weapon in Syria, including during the government’s operation to re-take Eastern Aleppo. Syria acceded to the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention in 2013.

As Syrian government forces entered the town of al-Hammouriyeh on March 14, there was a frenzied aerial bombing campaign, witnesses said. Among the casualties was Ahmad Hamdan, a media activist and resident of al-Hammouriyeh, reported to have been killed by an airstrike. One witness told Human Rights Watch that on March 14: “I was trying to escape with my family, and I saw an entire family get blown up in front of my very eyes. I immediately turned back and took my children back to the basement.”

As government forces retake territory in Eastern Ghouta, civilians have started to evacuate. On March 15, Syrian and Russian media livestreamed the evacuation of what was claimed to be 12,000 residents from al-Hammouriyeh crossing to government-held areas. Human Rights Watch reviewed the footage which showed many people leaving. According to one witness and media reports, residents who have moved into areas under government control are being transported to sites around the enclave, including camps and schools, where they are being screened.

International law unequivocally prohibits summary and extrajudicial executions. In situations of armed conflict, combatants are legitimate targets as long as they take part in hostilities, but deliberately killing injured, surrendered, or captured soldiers (those hors de combat) would constitute a war crime. Any evacuation must be safe and voluntary, and protected by guarantees of security and non-reprisals. Civilians are entitled to protection whether they choose to leave or stay in an area, and parties to the conflict should not block civilians from leaving. Parties must allow impartial humanitarian relief reach civilians in need, regardless of whether the civilians have an option to leave.

The Syrian government should verifiably guarantee that the fundamental rights of individuals who were living under the control of non-state armed groups in Eastern Ghouta will be respected and protected, in particular when they are subject to security screenings and in detention. Authorities should ensure that the screening process is limited to a period of hours rather than days, and that anyone held longer is treated as a detainee and afforded all protections to which detainees are entitled under international law. No one should be presumed to be a combatant based on age or gender absent individualized evidence of criminal wrongdoing. The authorities should allow UN and other independent monitors access to all screening and detention centers.

“For every hour that a potential Russian veto prevents any decisive action by the UN Security Council, civilians on the ground in Eastern Ghouta are facing a real threat of reprisals,” said Fakih “The least the Security Council can do now is to deploy monitors to offer some protection for civilians. If the council can’t do so, the General Assembly should act as it did for Aleppo.”

Coverup in Thai Army Killing of Teenage Activist

Friday, March 16, 2018


Ethnic Lahu activist Chaiyaphum Pa-sae, 17, was shot dead by Thai soldiers during an anti-drug operation on March 17, 2017.  

An inquest in Thailand into the death of a teenage ethnic Lahu activist ended today without an answer to a critical question: What happened to the missing security camera footage the army claims justified the shooting?

Chaiyaphum Pa-sae, 17, was shot dead on March 17, 2017, by soldiers from the army’s 5th Cavalry Regiment Task Force and the Pha Muang Task Force after they arrested him for alleged drug possession in Chiang Dao district of Thailand’s northern Chiang Mai province.

The investigation into Chaiyaphum’s death has been hampered by shoddy police work. In

 April 2017, the army gave police a computer hard drive containing footage from security cameras at the checkpoint where soldiers arrested and shot Chaiyaphum. But Chaiyaphum’s family found during the inquest at Chiang Mai Provincial Court that the March 17 footage was missing. No one explained how the footage – which the army had claimed proved the shooting was justified – went missing. Police, prosecutors, and judges responsible for this case did not demand that the army hand over this critical evidence even after they knew it was missing.

Lt. Gen. Wichak Siribansop, the army commander for Thailand’s northern provinces, told the media on March 23, 2017, that he saw the footage and concluded that the soldiers were acting reasonably because Chaiyaphum escaped and was about to throw a hand grenade at them.

“That was a right decision … self-defense,” Wichak said. “He [the soldier] fired one shot at the arm … but the bullet hit the boy’s vital organ ... If that was me, I would have opened fire in full automatic mode.” 

The missing footage raises doubts about the military’s claims. Thailand’s judicial authorities should not accept at face value the army’s one-sided account of Chaiyaphum’s death. They need to undertake a thorough and impartial investigation of his killing and make their findings public. They also need to investigate and prosecute possible obstruction of justice by the army.

In the 15 years since Thailand’s abusive “war on drugs” was officially declared, there have been thousands of unexplained and unaccountable deaths. Uncovering what really happened to Chaiyaphum might help to end this brutal and lawless campaign. 

US Blocks Funds to UN Population Fund – Again

Friday, March 16, 2018

Syrian women sit in the waiting area to see a female doctor at a maternity clinic run by United Nations Population Fund inside Jordan's Al Zaatari refugee camp, which houses nearly 80,000 Syrian refugees, in Mafraq, Jordan November 22, 2016.

© 2016 Reuters

While attention has been focused on the tumult around US President Donald Trump’s firing of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, US officials quietly renewed a decision made last year to block funding for the UN Population Fund – known as UNFPA.

It’s hard to know exactly what justification the Administration has advanced for this decision – the notification the Trump administration sent to Congress is classified “sensitive” and thus the public has not seen it. However, the UN Population Fund has been told that, like last year, the Trump administration is claiming it violates the Kemp-Kasten Amendment, which blocks US aid to any organization the US determines is involved in coercive abortion or involuntary sterilization.

Last year, the determination provided zero evidence that the Population Fund favors or directly supports coercive abortions or involuntary sterilizations. Rather, it cited the Population Fund’s partnership with the Chinese government on family planning programs, and US concerns about the Chinese government’s abusive reproductive health policies – which include a two-child limit per family and coerced gynecological exams to check for out-of-quota pregnancies – as the basis for the determination.

UN Population Fund is an agency that goes where few others do – into war zones and countries wracked by natural disasters – to try to make sure that pregnant women and girls get health care, can deliver babies safely, and are protected from gender-based violence, even as the world falls apart around them. There is more need than they can address, and without US funding even more women will fall through the cracks.

Human Rights Watch sees Population Fund’s work firsthand around the world. My colleague recently shared her experience visiting the agency’s facilities in Jordan’s sprawling Zaatari refugee camp, where tens of thousands of Syrian refugees live. Since 2012, 8,500 babies have been born there with the Population Fund’s help, and no mothers have died from childbirth-related causes. Additionally, girls can play in safe spaces. “There is nowhere else in Zataari” that serves this role, my colleague said.

The US is one of the largest core donors for UNFPA and blocking this money will hurt its core functions of addressing gender-based violence, child marriage, and female genital mutilations. The US has also been crucial to supporting the Population Fund’s emergency work – it was a primary donor to Zaatari’s maternal health facility – and the loss of these funds is devastating. The US Congress should keep funding UNFPA, even if the administration blocks the release of the funds. Moreover, the Senate should take a leadership role in finding a solution to preserve the important US role in supporting the Population Fund’s crisis response. Women and girls around the world are counting on it.

In a Man’s Death, a Glimpse of Libya’s Horrors

Friday, March 16, 2018

Segen, a 22-year-old Eritrean, stares into the camera before disembarking in Pozzallo, Sicily, from the Pro Activa Open Arms rescue ship on March 13, 2018. He died several hours later.

© Kepa Fuentes

A young Eritrean man died on Tuesday in Sicily of tuberculosis compounded by severe malnutrition. His name was Segen.* He was 22.

There is so much about Segen we may never know. Did he prefer to read books or play football? What music did he like? Had he ever been in love? Who did he leave behind?

This is what we do know: Segen was rescued from the Mediterranean on Sunday by Pro Activa Open Arms, a Spanish group, and disembarked in Sicily on Monday. He died in the hospital. He told rescuers he was held captive in Libya for 19 months.

Segen may have been held in an official detention center or by smugglers – in today’s Libya, both are similar and brutal. He may have been held for ransom, or tortured while forced to call home so his family could hear him scream as he begged them to send money. He may have been sold from one smuggling network to another or forced to work without pay.

These possibilities are based on accounts I heard from migrants who escaped Libya. When I went out on a rescue ship run by SOS MEDITERRANEE and Médécins sans Frontières, they rescued many Eritreans and Somalis who had spent many months in captivity in Libya; some were severely emaciated.

If Segen had survived, there’s a good chance he would have been granted the right to stay in Europe; most Eritreans are because of serious repression, including indefinite military conscription, in Eritrea.

Yet European governments are empowering Libyan authorities to stop migrant boat departures and intercept – including in international waters – ones that do launch. All of those on board are then indefinitely detained in Libya.

While implementing policies that effectively trap people like Segen in horrible abuse, European governments are failing to resettle people the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, evacuates from Libya to Niger. Roughly 1,000 people have been taken to Niger, but only 25 have been resettled in France, leading Niger to ask UNHCR to temporarily suspend the program.

Europe can and should do more. Our governments should focus on ending the cycle of captivity and violence in Libya and help as many people as possible reach a place of safety. Ramping up resettlement is a good place to start.

*Italian authorities registered his name as Tesfalidet Tesfon, but he was known as Segen.

Brazil: Assassination of Rights Defender, Driver

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Marielle Franco in Rio de Janeiro.

Mídia Ninja

(Rio de Janeiro) Brazilian authorities should ensure a prompt, thorough, and independent investigation into the killing of a human rights defender and her driver in Rio de Janeiro, Human Rights Watch said today.

Marielle Franco, 38, a Rio de Janeiro City Council member, and her driver, Anderson Pedro Gomes, 39, were gunned down on March 14, 2018 after a car pulled alongside theirs and opened fire. A press officer who worked for Franco who was sitting in the back seat was injured.

“Marielle was an outspoken and courageous advocate for victims of police abuse and a tireless defender of the rights of women and Afro-Brazilians,” said Maria Laura Canineu, Brazil director at Human Rights Watch. “Brazilian authorities need to respond decisively by identifying those responsible for the killing of Marielle and Anderson, and bringing them to justice.”

Franco was born and raised in one of Rio´s impoverished communities, where she became an activist. In the last few days, she had posted several tweets about killings by the police in Rio de Janeiro.

Franco was elected to the city council in 2016 and was the president of the women´s commission. She was recently appointed rapporteur of a municipal commission to monitor the federal intervention in policing Rio de Janeiro. President Michel Temer ordered that intervention in February, handing over control of the state police and prisons to the armed forces.

The responsibility for investigating the killings lies with Rio de Janeiro´s civil police and, if requested, with the federal police. The army general in charge of the federal intervention in Rio should guarantee investigators the necessary resources and independence to identify the murderers, Human Rights Watch said.

Rio de Janeiro´s Attorney General, Eduardo Gussem, should immediately call on the Group of Specialized Action Public Security (GAESP, in Portuguese), —which is responsible for ensuring thorough investigations by police, to participate in the investigation.

“The climate of near total impunity in Rio de Janeiro needs to end once and for all,” Canineu said. “Marielle and Anderson are the latest victims of a security system that has long failed to stop violence, or to ensure justice for the victims.”


UN Body Freezing Out Human Rights Groups

Thursday, March 15, 2018

The United Nations logo is pictured in front of the United Nations Headquarters building during the 71st United Nations General Assembly in the Manhattan borough of New York, U.S., September 22, 2016. 

© 2016 Reuters

It’s easy to assume that the United Nations Committee on Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) would support civil society groups and their work.

So imagine my shock when, as a journalist covering the UN in 2016, I saw the rough way the NGO Committee treated the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a highly regarded New York-based media freedom group applying for UN accreditation.

Astonishingly, most NGO Committee member countries were openly hostile to civil society applicants. Ultimately, the NGO Committee rejected CPJ’s application, a four-year process that CPJ head Joel Simon described as “Kafkaesque.”

The NGO Committee’s antipathy towards independent rights groups is hardly a surprise. Many of the 19 committee members are a rogues gallery of human rights violators: Azerbaijan, Burundi, China, Cuba, Greece, Guinea, India, Iran, Israel, Mauritania, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Russia, South Africa, Sudan, Turkey, the US, Uruguay and Venezuela.

As governments worldwide shrink the space for civil society, it’s vital that the UN remain a forum where nongovernmental organizations can advocate for human rights and dignity, which the UN was created to protect. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has said civil society is "a key element in solving global problems.”

A few months after the NGO Committee rejected CPJ, the US brought its case to the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), to which the NGO Committee reports. ECOSOC voted to overturn the decision.

CPJ’s story is not unique. In the coming months the US will bring two more applications to ECOSOC, one a group focusing on human rights in Iran and another on North Korea. The NGO Committee has repeatedly deferred them, in one case since 2011. Canada and Australia have also appealed rejections to ECOSOC.

Human Rights Watch has documented China’s use of its membership in ECOSOC and the NGO Committee to prevent groups critical of China from getting UN accreditation.

ECOSOC should ensure swift decisions on nongovernmental organization applications and impose term limits for committee members. CBC news reported that Russia has been on the NGO Committee since 1946, while China, Cuba and Sudan have been on it for over 20 years.

Elections for the NGO Committee are set for April. Governments that value the role of nongovernmental organizations in promoting respect for human rights should seek seats. It’s essential that the committee become a body that works with, not against, civil society.

Hungary’s Government Turns on the UN

Thursday, March 15, 2018

A government billboard is seen ahead of April 8 parliamentary election in Budapest, Hungary March 6, 2018. The billboard reads: 'The U.N. wants us to accept migrants on a continuous basis. HUNGARY DECIDES, NOT THE U.N.'

© 2018 Reuters

Hungary’s government has smeared human rights groups, the European Union, migrants, and philanthropist and former financier George Soros. Now the Hungarian government has a new target – the United Nations.

Hungary’s Foreign Minister has even demanded the resignation of the UN’s top human rights official Zeid bin Ra’ad al-Hussein – after Zeid, in a speech to the UN Human Rights Council, described as racist comments made by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán about immigration and race-mixing.

To his credit, Zeid also denounced leaders engaging in shameless xenophobia in Europe, calling for members to stand against leaders stoking hatred for political profit.

Days later, in early March, Hungary’s government declared war on the UN Migration Compact, a non-binding global policy currently being negotiated, designed to cover all sides of international migration. The government plans on using taxpayer’s money to fund a so called “information campaign” on the compact and blocked negotiations of the policy at the EU level.

Hungary’s foreign minister even wants the UN to say migration is “bad and dangerous.”

Now, blue posters across Hungary say the “UN wants Hungary to continuously accept migrants” and that the “UN wants us to pay for the settlement and employment of migrants.”

It’s no coincidence that this is happening shortly before national legislative elections, set for April 8. The prime minister has repeatedly said the elections will determine whether “Hungary will remain Hungarian, or become an immigrant country.” Journalists have reported that the government party at campaign events is portraying nongovernmental groups and media outlets as groups that “have to be stopped.”

Human Rights Watch is one of those organizations. We could even fall under the scope of newly proposed bills penalizing organizations “supporting migration.” The pending bills, which claim asylum seekers are a national security threat, have been criticized by several UN experts and risk blocking vital support to asylum seekers and migrants in Hungary.

This anti-UN, anti-immigrant rhetoric doesn’t seem to be hurting Hungary’s ruling party, which is riding high in the polls. But it is seriously damaging both human rights in the country and Hungary’s international standing – it’s likely to face criticism next week before the Human Rights Committee at the UN where its human rights record will be reviewed.

Whoever wins the vote on April 8 will have bridges to build. As a European Union and United Nations member, Hungary’s pre-election campaigns are harming its status in both places.

Iran: Crackdown on Dervish Minority

Thursday, March 15, 2018

(Beirut) – Iranian authorities arrested over 300 members of the minority Dervish Muslim community in late February 2018 after police forcibly tried to break up a protest, Human Rights Watch said today. The events in February stemmed from what appears to be an intensified crackdown on the Dervish minority, including likely ramped-up surveillance of the group’s leader.


Police Forces at the scene of the clashes, Tehran, Iran February 19,2018. 

© 2018 Majzooban-e-Noor

The ensuing clashes left dozens of people injured and at least three police officers and one Basij member dead. One arrested protester died in custody in unexplained circumstances. The Iranian authorities should immediately release those held or charge them with a recognizable crime. The authorities should also allow for an independent investigation into possible use of excessive force during the clashes.

“Iranian judicial and security authorities are on a tear, violently repressing protests by groups ranging from people concerned about economic conditions to women tired of compulsory dress laws and now a religious minority group,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Crushing dissent instead of encouraging dialogue is a hallmark of oppression.”

Police disrupted a protest by members of the Nematollahi Gonabadi Dervish religious community on February 19 and the early morning of February 20, leading to the violent clashes. Authorities subsequently arrested at least 300 members of the Gonabadi community, including about 60 women. Many of those detained remain in Evin, Fashafouyeh, and Qarchak prisons in Tehran.

On March 4, authorities informed the family of Mohammad Raji, one of those arrested, that he had died in custody. The authorities have refused to provide any explanation and have threatened reprisals against his family if they speak about it publicly. It is the fifth death in custody in Iran since the beginning of 2018.

Judicial authorities have said that those responsible for the deaths of the security agents are undergoing fast-track prosecutions, raising serious concerns about the lack of due process protections and fair trial standards.

On February 20, the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) news website aired a video in which a man, identified later by media as Mohammed Sallas, said he had driven the bus into the police officers out of anger over their actions, but that he had not intended to kill anyone. He was filmed in a hospital bed and appeared severely injured, raising questions about the conditions under which the video was filmed.

On March 1, Hossein Rahimi, the Tehran police chief, said during an interview on the Iran Radio Channel that a person charged with killing the security agents will be executed before Iran’s new year on March 21.

On March 11, Sallas, who is a member of the Dervish community, appeared in court to face charges in the killing of three of the police officers. During his trial, he said that the police forces attacked him during the protests, causing multiple head wounds. The verdict is scheduled to be issued within seven days.

Following the February clashes, several imams during Friday prayers called for decisive action against members of the Gonabadi Dervish community. On February 23, Ayatollah Seyed Ahmad Alamolhoda, the Friday prayer imam in the religious city of Mashhad, said during the prayers that the Dervishes are a “deviant group” led by the United Kingdom.

The Nematollahi Gonabadis consider themselves followers of Twelver Shia Islam, the official state religion in Iran, but authorities have persecuted them for their religious beliefs in recent years. On March 8, Noor Ali Tabandeh, the spiritual leader of the Nematollahi Gonabadi Dervish faith, published a video stating that he is not allowed to leave his residence in Tehran.

Attacks against police forces are criminal acts that may be prosecuted, but Iranian authorities should not extend criminal responsibility of individuals alleged to have committed criminal acts to an entire group of protesters, Human Rights Watch said. Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all circumstances because it is an inherently irreversible, inhumane punishment.

Under international law, everyone is allowed to participate in lawful and peaceful assemblies, based on the principles embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and also the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Iran is a party. The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials require them to avoid the use of force when dispersing assemblies that are unlawful but nonviolent or, if that is not practicable, to restrict such force to the minimum extent necessary.

Article 14 of the ICCPR also requires Iran to ensure the right to a fair trial of anyone brought before the criminal courts. This includes the right “to have adequate time and facilities for the preparation of his defense and to communicate with counsel of his own choosing.” The Iranian authorities should not only charge detainees with a recognizable crime but ensure the right to a fair trial for those charged, Human Rights Watch said.


Dervish protesters severely injured, Tehran, Iran February 20, 2018. 

© 2018 Majzooban-e-Noor

Article 18 of the ICCPR requires Iran to secure the right to freedom of religion for everyone in the country, and article 27 requires Iran to ensure the right of all members of religious minorities to profess and practice their own religion.

“It is clear that Iranian authorities are using the February incident to crack down against another religious minority community,” Whitson said. “From claiming that they recognize the right to protest in January to repressing every single group that has protested since then, Iranian authorities are making a mockery of fundamental rights.”

The Dervish Protests

Farhad Noori, the editor of the Majzooban-e-Noor website, which covers news about the Gonabadi Dervish religious community, told Human Rights Watch that the Dervish community’s peaceful protests began on Golestan-e Haftom street in the Pasdaran neighborhood in north Tehran on January 4. Protesters feared that intelligence authorities were attempting to build a kiosk to monitor the residence of their leader, Noor Ali Tabandeh.

On February 4, plainclothes security forces appeared in the neighborhood, leading to minor clashes with members of the Dervish community that ended when the police intervened. The following day, Rahimi, the Tehran police chief, told Iranian Student News Agency (ISNA) that there was no plan to confront the Dervish community. Noori said that police forces agreed to allow Dervish members to remain in the neighborhood to ensure the safety of their leader’s residence.

Events of February 19 to 20

On February 19, police forces arrested two members of the Dervish community who had reported a stolen car to the police. While one person was released immediately, police interrogated Nematollah Riahi, a 70-year-old from Shahr-e Kurd, apparently about his religious beliefs. Authorities announced that they had questioned Riahi for attempts to steal a car. On February 20, members of the Dervish community gathered in front of police station 102 in the Pasdaran neighborhood to protest Riahi’s detention. The police moved in a few hours later, leading to the violent clashes.

A video, one of several published on social media, shows a bus plowing into security forces. A man identified as Mohammed Sallas is featured in the February 20 video on the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) news website in which he says from his hospital bed that he was the driver of the bus and had reacted out of anger with no intention to kill anyone. Sallas faces the death penalty and is at risk of serious due process violations due to the government’s announcement that those responsible for the death of security forces will undergo a “fast-track” prosecution.

Noori said that the clashes spread to Golestan-e Haftom street, where Noor Ali Tabandeh lives. Close to midnight, plainclothes and Basij forces reportedly attacked the Dervishes, injuring dozens. After the incident, security forces arrested almost all Dervishes at the scene. On February 20, Montazer al-Mahdi told media websites that authorities had arrested about 300 people during the clashes in Pasdaran neighborhood, and that the area was cleared at 4:30 a.m. on February 20.

News websites close to Basij forces also reported the death of a Basij member, Mohammad Hossein Haddadian, during the clashes. While some accounts have claimed a car ran over Haddadian, the photos of his body published on ISNA show several shotgun wounds. Haddadian’s mother told Tasnim news on March 1 that witnesses told her that her son had been among the Basij forces in the Pasdaran area after 11 p.m. on February 19. On March 6, in a rare act of this kind, Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, visited Hadadian’s family.

Arrests and Detention

According to a source who wished to remain anonymous, authorities arrested about 60 women from the Gonabadi Dervish community on the night of February 19. While most were released soon after, 11 remain in Qarchak prison in southern Tehran. They include Shokoufeh Yadollahi, Sepideh Moradi, Nazila Nouri, Sima Entesari, Shima Entesari, Shahnaz Kiani, Maryam Barakouhi, Avisha Jalaledin, Maryam Farsyabi, and Elham Ahmadi. Authorities transferred another woman, Sedigheh Safabakhsh, from Evin prison to Qarchak prison a few days later. Shokoufeh Yadollahi suffered a head injury during the protests and has not received proper treatment, the source said, and her sons Kasra and Amin Noori were severely injured and are also detained.

Farhad Noori told Human Rights Watch on March 9 that authorities were still detaining about 130 men from the Gonabadi community in Fashafouyeh prison, with dozens of others receiving treatment at different hospitals in Tehran. Dozens of Dervish men are also believed to be in Evin prison.

Mohammad Raji

On March 4, police called Raji’s family and asked them to come to a police station, where they informed them that he had died in custody. On March 5, the Fars News Agency, which maintains close relations with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), reported that “an informed source denied reports about the death of a Dervish in Evin Prison or in police detention and said: “We have not had any deaths among members of this cult during investigations.” He added, “This person was injured on the night of clashes on Pasdaran Street and was taken to Baqiyatallah Hospital, but he died.”

His family has emphasized in media interviews that they saw Raji alive, but severely injured, at the time of his arrest. An informed source who wished to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals told Human Rights Watch that the death certificate authorities issued lists February 19 as the date of death, but the cause is marked as “under investigation.” The source said that authorities coerced Raji’s family to bury his body with police forces present at 2 a.m. on March 6 at a cemetery in the city of Aligudarz in Lorestan province. Authorities have threatened to arrest Raji’s family members if they continue to speak to the media.

Sri Lanka Bans Cluster Munitions

Wednesday, March 14, 2018


Sri Lanka’s accession to the Mine Ban Treaty and Convention on Cluster Munitions could spur increased financial and technical assistance to help ensure implementation, particularly for clearance of areas contaminated by landmines and explosive remnants of war.

© 2018 Lalith Perera/ Colombo Gazette Sri Lanka has become the 103rd country to join the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions, and the first South Asian country to ban these indiscriminate weapons.

Sri Lanka acceded to the convention on March 1, 2018, less than three months after the country’s accession to the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty.

As a state party to both conventions, Sri Lanka has committed to never use, transfer, produce, or stockpile cluster munitions or antipersonnel landmines under any circumstances. It must declare and destroy any stocks as well as report and clear mined areas and contamination from unexploded submunitions and other cluster munition remnants by specific deadlines.

One incentive for countries to join these treaties is the likelihood of financial and technical assistance from other countries to help ensure implementation of the treaty requirements. This benefits mine clearance operators risking their lives daily to make land safe again and can help victims of landmines and explosive remnants of war.

Sri Lanka is not known to have produced or exported cluster munitions, a weapon that releases between multiple submunitions in the air, scattering them across a wide area and creating a deadly legacy of explosive remnants. Officials have denied the armed forces ever used these weapons, although there were allegations of use during Sri Lanka’s civil war with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, which ended in 2009. During the nearly three-decade long conflict, both sides committed numerous serious violations of the laws of war, many amounting to war crimes.

Antipersonnel mines were produced and used extensively by both sides during the conflict. The transparency now required of Sri Lanka as a state party to these treaties could help to formally answer questions about past cluster munition and land mine use.

Other South Asian countries, such as India, Nepal, and Pakistan, that have yet to sign either ban treaty should review their policy on cluster munitions and landmines and take steps to join without further delay.

All countries should help stigmatize these indiscriminate weapons, which endanger lives long after the fighting has stopped.

US Senators Urge EPA to Keep Protecting Kids from Pesticides

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Scott Pruitt, Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, answers a question during the Concordia Summit in Manhattan, New York, U.S., September 19, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters

Yesterday, while the world watched as US President Donald Trump fired his Secretary of State and reshuffled people in two top posts, 28 US senators made an important move that might not make headlines: They protested US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposals to weaken pesticide protections for children.

The lawmakers wrote to Scott Pruitt, the EPA administrator, after the EPA announced it was considering rolling back two Obama-era safeguards that prohibit children under 18 from handling pesticides on farms and in other workplaces. The Senators, led by Tom Udall (D-NM), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), added their voices to a coalition of farmworkers, advocates, labor unions, and nongovernmental organizations begging the EPA not to roll back crucially important protections for the health of children.

Children younger than 18, who are in a critical stage of growth and development, are especially susceptible to toxic pesticides. The American Academy of Pediatrics has said there’s a clear link between childhood exposure to pesticides and “pediatric cancers, decreased cognitive function, and behavioral problems.”

The United States government and tobacco companies are failing to protect teenage children from hazardous work in tobacco farming.

One of the safeguards under threat bans child workers from handling pesticides on farms and other agricultural workplaces, and from entering fields where pesticides have recently been sprayed. The other safeguard prohibits children from using high-risk pesticides – known as restricted use pesticides, or RUPs – in, on, or around schools, homes, farms, or workplaces like golf courses. The EPA could also eliminate a worker’s right to designate a representative to get information about chemicals they are exposed to at work and a requirement for people spraying pesticides to stop if they see an unprotected person enter their surroundings.

Both rules exempt a farmer’s or business owner’s or operator’s immediate family members. So farmers or pesticide applicators who want their own children to have the opportunity to handle pesticides have every right to do so.

Pruitt should listen to the 28 Senators and make pesticide safeguards for kids non-negotiable.

Brazil Boosts Transgender Legal Recognition

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

A man shows his rainbow flag during the Gay Pride parade in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, July 30, 2006.

© 2006 Reuters

Brazil’s Supreme Court ruled that the government can no longer require transgender people who want their name and gender marker on identification documents changed to undergo medical procedures or subject their decisions to judicial review. Last week’s decision is a major shift that reflects increasing global momentum to recognize transgender people’s rights to dignity and recognition before the law.

Transgender people in Brazil had previously been able to change their names and legal gender in the national civil registry and on some identification documents – but only after undergoing mandatory psychiatric evaluations and surgical procedures and obtaining a judicial order from the Public Prosecutor.

Countries around the world have changed their policies on legal gender recognition in recent years to ones based on rights and a person’s self-identification, not the approval of any doctor, psychologist, judge, or other authority.

Argentina was the first country to do so with a 2012 law considered the gold standard for legal gender recognition. There, anyone older than 18 can choose their legal gender and revise official documents without judicial or medical approval.

In subsequent years, Colombia, Denmark, Ireland, Norway, and Malta eliminated significant barriers to legal gender recognition. Courts in India, Nepal, and Botswana have also called on governments to recognize gender identity.

On January 9, 2018, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights issued an advisory opinion asserting that countries should establish fast, inexpensive, and straightforward procedures to ensure legal gender recognition based solely on the self-perceived identity of a person.

Brazil is now part of this change. People should not be forced to carry an identity marker that does not reflect who they are. Recognizing peoples’ self-identified gender is not asking governments to acknowledge any new or special rights. Instead, it is a commitment to the core idea that governments will not decide for people who they are.

White House Shakeup Threatens Legal Protections

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director Mike Pompeo testifies before the Senate Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., February 13, 2018.

© 2018 Reuters

President Donald Trump’s nomination of Mike Pompeo to head the State Department and Gina Haspel the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) do not bode well for US commitments to uphold basic rights and the rule of law at home and abroad.

Last year, Human Rights Watch opposed Pompeo to be CIA director partly because of his prior endorsement of torture. These concerns persist. During his confirmation hearing, Pompeo said waterboarding and other previously used interrogation techniques that amounted to torture were barred by a 2015 law. But in written follow-up questions, he raised the possibility that the law may have to be revised if it became an impediment for US interrogators. In a January speech he tacitly endorsed coercive methods, saying that if CIA officers said they “missed an opportunity to obtain information from a detainee … we’re going to begin to move heaven and earth to make sure that something like that does not ever happen again.”


Gina Haspel, a veteran CIA clandestine officer picked by U.S. President Donald Trump to head the Central Intelligence Agency, is shown in this handout photograph released on March 13, 2018.

© 2018 CIA handout

Haspel is reported to have run a CIA “black site” in Thailand as part of a US program that used torture after the 9/11 attacks. She later served as chief of staff to Jose Rodriguez, who led the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center from approximately 2002 to 2004. In these positions she was directly involved in the CIA’s notorious and unlawful rendition, detention, and interrogation program. She was also directly involved in ordering the destruction of videos of CIA officers torturing detainees. The US government should investigate Haspel for past violations, not nominate her for higher office.

The prohibition on torture is a central tenet of the post-World War II international human rights legal regime in which the US was a key actor from the beginning. It is bad enough that outgoing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson ran the State Department poorly, demoralized staff, undermined US multilateral engagement, embraced arms deals to governments committing widespread abuses, supported restrictions on women’s rights, and barely engaged human rights issues.

Now, by nominating a secretary of state and a CIA director with a history of endorsing abusive practices, the Trump administration not just runs the risk of eroding US law on torture and other ill-treatment, but US engagement in the international legal system more broadly. Any senator who cares about either outcome should oppose both nominations.

US Detains Yet Another Immigrant Rights Activist

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Alejandra Pablos.

© National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health via Twitter

The US has detained yet another immigrant rights activist. In recent months, US authorities have detained, initiated deportation proceedings against, and deported several immigrants’ rights activists including a green card holder and a “Dreamer.”

Last week, Alejandra Pablos, a field coordinator for National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, was detained after a routine check in at the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) field offices in Arizona.

Pablos has lived in the US since she was a small child, and her mother and most of her family are US citizens. She has filed for asylum because she says she fears persecution in Mexico for her US political activities.

Her immigration status has been in jeopardy since she was convicted of driving under the influence in 2012. After she served time in both prison and immigration detention, Pablos was released, but ordered to check in with ICE every three months. It was during one of these routine check-ins that she was sent back into detention.

Given her long US residence and family ties, Pablos’ detention and the inherent threat of deportation is deeply concerning. US immigration law generally fails to take adequate account of immigrants’ ties to this country in weighing whether the government has a sufficient reason to deport people.

In recent months, ICE has arrested and deported several immigrants’ rights activists. Ravi Ragbir, a former green card holder from Trinidad and the head of the New Sanctuary Coalition (NSC), was arrested in New York City. Jean Montrevil, an immigrant from Haiti who also worked at NSC, was deported – despite having lived in the US for over three decades with his four US-citizen children. Daniela Vargas, a Mississippi “Dreamer” brought to the US as a child from Argentina, was detained minutes after speaking about her experience at a press conference. Maru Mora Villalpando, a high-profile undocumented activist from Mexico, was served with deportation papers in December.

Represented by the NYU Immigrant Rights Clinic, Ravi Ragbir and a group of immigrants’ rights organizations filed a First Amendment lawsuit last month claiming that “federal immigration authorities have specifically targeted prominent and outspoken immigrant-rights activists across the country on the basis of their speech and political advocacy on behalf of immigrants’ rights and social justice.” They have asked the court to order ICE to stop any retaliatory enforcement of immigration laws.

Instead of deporting so many noncitizens with deep ties to the US, the US government and ICE should overhaul the immigration system and take urgent steps to rein in its abuses. The system has far too many paths that lead to automatic deportation, and not nearly enough that allow people whose entire lives are rooted in the United States to stay.